Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The story of ordinary women doing extraordinary things

Hidden Figures:
In conversation with the Library of Congress.

Author Margot Lee Shetterly might not be a household name, but through her book, Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, and the Academy Award-winning film Hidden Figures that was inspired by it, we've learned about a group of NASA black female professional mathematicians – "human computers" – who helped propel the United States to victory in the space race. Who knew?

"Why haven't I heard this story before?" is a familiar question the Hampton, Va. native, University of Virginia graduate Shetterly hears, more than a year and half after her book was published and turned into a big screen biographical drama starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe. Both the book (published by William Morrow/HarperCollins) and the film (distributed by 20th Century Fox) highlight the remarkable stories of pioneering black women mathematicians at NASA whose calculations fueled great achievements for the U.S. space program as it was competing for supremacy against Russia during the Cold War. These pioneers included: Katherine Goble Johnson, a mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury; Dorothy Vaughan, a NASA supervisor; and Mary Jackson, a NASA engineer.

These women weren't household names like NASA astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepard. Yet, they accomplished great things and led extraordinary lives in eras of limited opportunity for women. They broke barriers before gender, race, science and politics became a rallying cry for females.

Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly.
Through Shetterly's storytelling, we learn there are scores of other black women – hidden figures – who worked for decades in anonymity as professional mathematicians, scientists and engineers. They overcame gender and racial hardships, and through their perseverance, they were all bright lights.

"Of course, the factors making their narrative so compelling to modern audiences are the same that conspired to keep the story under wraps for so long: racial segregation, gender bias and the arcane, sensitive nature of the work being done at NASA kept these women in the national blindspot," Shetterly wrote in the March/April issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. 

Last week, Shetterly and American film producer Donna Gigliotti, who developed Hidden Figures into an Academy Award-winning movie, appeared at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. as part of the Library's Women's History Month, in an hour-long forum, "Hidden Figures: Courage, Command, and Human Computers." As both spoke in conversation with Marie Arana, the Literary Advisor of the Library of Congress, black and white images of Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson were projected onto the stage celebrating these real-life hidden figures.

Hidden Figures producer Donna Gigliotti
"The truth is Margot was really onto something with her book that I could feel, that I knew it," said Gigliotti. "It was about American women not getting their due, African-American women not getting their due. It was about space, a confluence of things. I never doubted it wouldn't be successful."

Asked to describe how she researched Hidden Figures, Shetterly said, "The chain of knowledge was so interesting. One fact led to another. The first interview was with Katherine Johnson. She mentioned a number of people in that interview, such as Dorothy Vaughan. She mentioned Mary Jackson, who I did know because she worked with my father in the early part of his career.

"Every time I got a clue, I would just have to go off kind of like an archeologist and excavate the information. The information was really there, but it had never been collated into one place."

Shetterly said that the National Archives and the NASA History Office were particularly useful in her research as well as the interviews she conducted with principal hidden figures, such as Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson, and their children.

"There was so much information," said Shetterly. "Spending so much time with the math and the science and the engineering and with the reports was useful and it was like being in a time machine. I went back to 1943. Sometimes, it was about airplanes – because they were working with airplanes before space ships – other times it was about civil rights legislation that opened up public schools and public accommodations. Sometimes, it was about breakthroughs made by women during World War II. I got an incredible history lesson in doing this research. These people came back to life."

According to Shetterly, wrestling the information into a narrative was the hardest thing for her to accomplish. "It was important that the people led the story. It was always a human story and not just historical facts," she said.

Donna Gigliotti and Margot Lee Shetterly.
From listening to Shetterly and Gigliotti, I learned why storytelling matters and why, through books and films like Hidden Figures, it has the power to transform how each of us sees both our world and ourselves.

"When writers, historians and storytellers strive to present a more expansive – and truer – view of our shared past," said Shetterly, "we open the door to a more inclusive and equitable vision of our shared future."

Photos: All photos by Michael Dickens, © 2018.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Just 16, but Amanda Anisimova is on top of the world

Amanda Anisimova / On top of the tennis world.

Sixteen-year-old American tennis player Amanda Anisimova had not won a tour-level match until she arrived to play in the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells last week. Now, she's on top of the tennis world. Given a wild card entry into this annual, late winter WTA Premier event in the scenic California desert, Anisimova in just a few days has been nothing short of phenomenal – and she's fearless, too.

Whether she's hitting ripping forehands or two-fisted backhands – both with equal determination and success – the 149th-ranked Anisimova has been impressive. She's not dropped a set in winning her first three matches while tearing through the 96-player singles draw round by round.

During Sunday's Stadium One opener, Anisimova defeated two-time Wimbledon champion and No. 9 seed Petra Kvitova, 6-2, 6-4, to advance to the fourth round. The loss ended Kvitova's 14-match winning streak.

As Anisimova, the reigning U.S. Open junior champion, zeroed in on her latest victory – two days earlier, she advanced with an impressive win over No. 23 sed Anastasia Pavyuchenkova – it prompted Tennis Channel commentator Brett Haber to quip, "She's too young to be nervous."

Indeed, playing composed and focused well beyond her years, Anisimova placed 63 percent of her first serves in play and won 70 percent (23 of 33) of her first-serve points while losing just 19 points on her serve against Kvitova. She broke her opponent five times, outpointed Kvitova 59-46, and won on her first match-point opportunity. She played smart and made good shot selections.

"I'm shaking right now. This is the biggest stage I've every played on against the strongest person I've ever played in a tournament," said Anisimova after beating Kvitova in just 69 minutes. "It's just crazy."

Just who is Anisimova? Well, she's the daughter of Russian parents who immigrated to the United States. The 5-foot-11 Anisimova was born in 2001 in Freehold, New Jersey, before moving to Aventura, Florida, where she learned to play tennis at the very young age of two. While she speaks Russian, she's very much American and has been home schooled so she can focus on playing tennis. Last year, at age 15, she earned a wild card entry into the main draw of the French Open.

"This girl is going to be good. She has the look and poise – the attitude – to be a great player," said Tennis Channel analyst and Hall of Fame great Martina Navratilova, in describing Anisimova immediately after she beat Kvitova.

Looking back on her biggest win as a professional, in defeating Kvitiova, Anisimova said: "She's the best player I have ever played, and it was the biggest court I have ever played on. So it was definitely nerve-racking kind of, but I was enjoying it so much out there. And I was playing my best. It was a good day."

Front and center, Anisimova is part of a talented group of young American women – which includes Caroline Dolehide and Danielle Collins, each who also received a wild card entry into the Indian Wells main draw – who are starting to gain notice by the tennis media and appreciated by tennis fans.

Next, Anisimova will face her third straight seeded player – and second consecutive top 10 player – when she plays No. 5 seed Karolina Pliskova, a former World No. 1, in the round of 16 on Tuesday afternoon. While she may not be favored to win, I wouldn't bet against her.

• A postscript: Pliskova defeated Anisimova, 6-1, 7-6 (2). Although she looked a bit nervous and played tentative at times in losing to the more experienced Pliskova, Anisimova enjoyed a great week of tennis at Indian Wells – and she's definitely hit the big time. Plus, she moves up 19 spots to No. 130 on the live WTA world rankings.

A version of this story originally appeared in Tennis-TourTalk.com.
Photo: Courtesy of WTA.com. Video: Courtesy of WTA/YouTube.com.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Serena Williams: There's no wrong way to be a woman

Serena Williams didn't necessarily begin her tennis career thinking she was going to be breaking down barriers, but she has done just that. Over the years, as Williams has become more conscious of the impact she's had on both sport and society, she's found herself with a platform and an opportunity to make a difference. Now, at age 36, Williams embraces being a leader who can pave the way for the next generation of female athletes.

On Sunday night, during the 90th Academy Awards telecast, Nike celebrated the life of Serena Williams. In a powerful 30-second spot, which featured a montage of footage of Williams on the tennis court throughout her storied career, the Nike ad included a voice over by the 23-time Grand Slam tennis champion, who made a powerful statement about womanhood, race and motherhood, saying there's no wrong way to be a woman. 

She said:

I've never been the right kind of woman.
Oversized and overconfident,
Too mean if I don't smile.
Too black for my tennis whites.
Too motivated for motherhood.
But I'm proving time and time again ...
There's no wrong way to be a woman.

Against a dark backdrop, the spot concluded with the words "Until we all win" next to a Nike logo.

The ad was created by Wieden + Kennedy of Portland, Oregon. 

A two-page Nike print ad featuring Williams, also created by Wieden + Kennedy, appeared in Sunday's New York Times. It said:

You told a little girl she was too black for her tennis whites. 
And she grew up to be Serena Williams.

In a statement, Nike said, "As we approach International Women's Day, Nike wanted to recognize and celebrate the contributions and achievements of women everywhere and share our belief in gender equality, in this case, delivered by Serena Williams, the greatest athlete of all time."

Nike, it seems, has always maintained a good pulse on cultural relevancy. On Sunday night, it leveraged an opportunity to elevate Williams's stature as athlete, who breaks down barriers and inspires women, before not only a large and captive prime-time audience watching the Oscars telecast in the U.S., but also a worldwide audience, too. 

"I'm still looking to the future, to breaking down additional barriers, like gender equity and pay equality," said Williams, in a statement released by Nike. "It doesn't happen overnight. It takes a lot of work and I'm going to keep on going and working at it, and I encourage others to use their voice and their platforms to do the same."

Becoming a mother has definitely been a game changer for Williams, and she said her fight for change and gender equality is something she's doing on behalf of her six-month-old daughter, Alexis. "I want my daughter to be truthful and honest, strong and powerful; to realize that she can impact those around her," said Williams. "I want her to grow up knowing a woman's voice is extremely powerful. As females, we need to continue to be loud and make sure we are heard."

Video:  Courtesy of Nike YouTube channel. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

A Winter Olympic memory that brought joy and heartbreak

Russian silver medalist Evgenia Medvedeva /
She created brilliant figure skating moments.
Over two weeks and three weekends, the PyeongChang Winter Olympics filled our hearts and television screens with lots of excitement. For my wife and I, much of it took place on the Olympic figure skating ice.

Sometimes, it was colorful and loud, oftentimes it was elegant. There were plenty of thrills and excitement, just a few spills and disappointments, but enough flash and panache to make it all seem worthwhile.

Because of the 14-hour time difference between South Korea and the U.S. east coast, we tuned in to watch figure skating following our nightly dinner – and, occasionally, it kept us awake past our bedtime. Sometimes, we watched online. Because we cared, learning about the human side of many of the Olympic figure skaters competing as well as about the sport's history was a real treat.

During the final two nights of figure skating last week, after the excitement of the team, men's and ice dance competitions, we had the noblest pleasure of watching the 18-year-old Russian Evgenia Medvedeva make her Olympic individual debut in the ladies' singles event. Performing to "Nocturne" by Frederic Chopin, Medvedeva performed her short program, which included a triple flip/triple toe loop combo, triple loop and double Axel, flawlessly. Her score of 81.61 points placed her second behind her Russian teammate Alina Zagitova, who scored 82.92.

Medvedeva's skating maturity and artistic presentation were well beyond her years. From watching her skate and in listening to the comments expressed by the NBC figure skating commentators, it gave us a joy of understanding Medvedeva, both as an athlete and as an individual. Among the things we learned about her: Medvedeva likes studying foreign languages, enjoys drawing, is fond of listening to music (such as K-pop), and loves Japanese culture (such as anime). She may skate like an adult, but she's a kid at heart – and that's the beauty and joy of it all.

Two days after skating her short program, Medvedeva returned to the Olympic ice. She was the last of 24 skaters to present her long program, which decided the gold medal – and was won by Zagitova by the slimmest of margins, 239.57 to 238.26. Medvedeva, skated as Tolstoy's tragic "Anna Karenina" with music composed by Dario Marianelli. 

As she skated, we rooted for Medvedeva, a two-time world champion and consensus favorite to win the gold before she broke a bone in her right foot last fall. As The New York Times wrote, "Medvedeva was forced to confront a sobering reality on Friday at age 18: Experience and artistry and expressiveness did not prevail over mathematics."

Before her final performance, Medvedeva said, "I'm not chasing numbers, I'm chasing feelings."

There was a beautiful, athletic bounce to Medvedeva's skating, a lovely expression on her face throughout her four-minute free skate to a classic Russian story. Medvedeva was Anna Karenina – and she gave it her all. She was mentally tough and she skated brilliantly. It was a perfect, balanced and mistake-free performance – Medvedeva didn't do anything wrong – even if it didn't earn her the gold medal.

What a way to win if you're Zagitova. What a way to lose if you're Medvedeva – even if losing means winning the silver medal.

Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova.
Indeed at age 15, Zagitova became the second-youngest women's skater to win the Olympic gold medal. With shrewd design and stamina, precision jumping and a sense of "youthful certainty," Zagitova landed all 11 of her jumps in the second half of her balletic "Don Quixote" free skate long program, compared to eight for Medvedeva. As The New York Times explained: "This is known as back loading, and is meant to gobble up a 10 percent bonus awarded for each jump beyond the halfway point of a routine, as skaters' legs begin to tire." 

Skating with calm and endurance, Zagitova's strategy – which was within the rules even if it broke the spirit of them – worked to her advantage, even if it wasn't as emotional and captivating as Medvedeva's long program.

The two Russian figure skaters each scored 156.65 in the free skate and Medvedeva was ranked first ahead of Zagitova. Looking back, Medvedeva's technical elements included: a triple flip/triple toe loop combo, a triple Lutz, a triple flip, a triple loop, a double Axel/double toe loop/double toe loop combo, a triple Salchow/triple toe loop combo and a double Axel. Her interpretation of her music was superb. 

"If most skaters skate with their brains," said NBC figure skating analyst Johnny Weir, as he watched Medvedeva perform, "Evgenia skates with her entire soul throughout her performance."

At the conclusion of Medvedeva's performance, NBC figure skating commentator Terry Gannon was moved to say, "I don't know if we just watched gold, but we watched greatness."

As it happened, Zagitova's victory was the second consecutive gold medal won by Russian women. Because they operate in a centralized training facility, unlike in the U.S., the top skaters challenge each other on a daily basis in practice. Thus, Zagitova was challenged by her friend and training partner Medvedeva – and it paid off. 

Looking back, as Medvedeva received the plaudits of the appreciative crowd before skating off the ice after to await her adjudication, she shed tears of joy – maybe of relief, too. Despite facing enormous pressure, she skated marvelously – a season-best performance. In our eyes – and many others, too – Medvedeva was a winner. And, yet, she handled her defeat so graciously. 

"She created brilliant moments," said NBC figure skating analyst and 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lapinski in describing what she had just seen Medvedeva perform. "This was one of the best ever competitions."

After receiving her silver medal, Medvedeva had time to reflect. "It's life and it's a lesson," she said. "Every year, every moment, every day, every week, every month, we must become stronger. ... Today, we proved ourselves here."

Photos: Courtesy of Google Images.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Forever: At 36, Roger Federer rewrites tennis history

Roger Federer arrived in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam last week with an unexpected opportunity of reclaiming the title of No. 1 male tennis player. He was given a wild card entry and a top seed in the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in exchange for interrupting his winter family vacation at home in Switzerland.

A perfect draw scenario required that Federer, ranked No. 2 in the world, need only to reach the semifinals of this ATP 500 event – where he would earn 180 ATP rankings points – and if successful, the No. 1 ranking would be his by a mere 25 points over the current World No. 1 Rafael Nadal.

After a pair of straight-set wins advanced him to the quarterfinals, Federer played for history on Friday night against his good friend, the unseeded No. 42 Robin Haase of the Netherlands, on Centre Court, in front of a sellout crowd at the Rotterdam Ahoy arena – plus a world wide TV audience.

The Swiss maestro didn't disappoint anyone.

In an emotional touchstone, Federer beat Haase, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1, in just 79 minutes, and he received a standing ovation from the appreciative Dutch crowd, many of them waving signs and banners. Federer briefly broke down after his meaningful and historic achievement was completed. Then, he was honored by the tournament's director, Richard Krajicek, who presented Federer with a commemorative trophy for becoming the oldest player to reach the ATP No. 1.

"I think reaching No. 1 is one of if not the ultimate achievement in our sport," said Federer, addressing the crowd after his record-breaking achievement. "So, sometimes at the beginning you just all of a sudden get there just because you're playing so well. Later, you sometimes try to fight it back and you wrestle it back from somebody else who deserved to be there. And when you're older, you know you feel like you have to put maybe sometimes double the work in. So, this one maybe means the most to me (of any achievement) throughout my career, getting to No. 1 and enjoying it right here at 36, almost 37 years old. (It) is an absolute dream come true, I can't believe it."

Although recapturing the No. 1 ranking for the first time since Nov. 4, 2012 – and supplanting Andre Agassi by more than three years to become the oldest male tennis player to be ranked World No. 1 – hasn't been a primary goal of his in 2018, everything has fallen into place very nicely for the 20-time Grand Slam champion. First, Federer helped Switzerland win the Hopman Cup in Perth to begin the year. Then, he won the Australian Open for a record-tying sixth time on Jan. 28. While other former No. 1 champions such as Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have struggled with injuries, Federer remains healthy and undefeated with a perfect 12-0 tour-level record (16-0 in all competitions).

Chasing after his 97th career ATP singles title on Sunday afternoon, Federer routed World No. 5 Grigor Dimitrov, 6-2, 6-2, to win the Rotterdam title. Looking fully focused and ready, Federer's victory marked the 30th time that he's defeated a Top 5 opponent in the final to earn a tour-level title.

"What a week it's been; absolutely amazing," said Federer, during the trophy presentation. "The goal was to make it to the semis – and I won the tournament. So, of course, I'm incredibly excited and so very happy. ... I'm still living the dream."

Indeed, in the past 14 months since January 2017, Federer has won three of his 20 Grand Slams (two Australian Opens and Wimbledon). In a professional career spanning 20 years, Federer has played 1,394 matches and won 1,144 of them – simply, an amazing achievement.

It's amazing to see Federer playing so well at age 36 – breaking records on court while balancing family life away from it – and according to U.S. Davis Cup captain and former No. 1 and Grand Slam champion Jim Courier, in a recent New York Times interview, "That he can make another run at the No. 1 ranking ... is a testament to his immense talent, diligent work habits and intelligent scheduling over the course of his career."

After his triumphant return to No. 1, the American apparel and footwear corporation Nike recognized Federer. who has long worn the familiar Nike swoosh on his tennis attire and shoes, and has an exclusive line that is marketed around the world. "Federer should be making history," the full-page advertisement in The New York Times read. "But Federer is too busy making it."

Federer's career has come full circle. He played his first tournament as World No. 1 in 2004 in Rotterdam, and now he's returned to No. 1 a day after winning Rotterdam in 2018. "It's definitely one of those weeks I will never forget in my life," he said. "It's unbelievable to get my 97th title and get back to World No. 1. It's very special."

Photo: Courtesy of Google Images.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A commentary: How long will we accept weapons of war being used to slaughter our nation's children?

On Wednesday, President Trump did not address the nation after the Florida high school shooting that left at least 17 dead. While his advisors recommended he say something in the aftermath of the latest horrific mass shooting in America, such as what President Obama did back in December 2012 in dealing with the Sandy Hook Elementary horror in which a gunman killed 20 first graders and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut – a moment he later said in a TV interview was the worst day of his presidency – this President opted not to. Mr. Trump remained silent, hiding behind his Twitter account.

While we have become tired of the empty gestures and platitudes which come with each new national tragedy, it seems that we as a nation should be disturbed by this President, who always wants to provoke, never reassure or commiserate like President Obama did so eloquently more than once during his eight-year stewardship of the White House.

Yesterday, before his team's NBA game in Portland, Oregon – just hours after the Florida shooting – Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who has always been open about his views on politics, addressed the matter of gun violence head on – unlike our current commander-in-chief. Kerr spoke out passionately about the need to find a way to curtail gun violence in the United States.

"It doesn't seem to matter to our government that children are being shot to death day after day in schools. It doesn't matter that people are being shot at a concert, in a movie theater. It's not enough apparently to move our leadership – our government – the people who are running this country to actually do anything. That's demoralizing," said Kerr.

Mind you, gun violence is a deeply personal issue for Kerr, whose father, Malcolm H. Kerr, was assassinated in 1984 by two gunmen outside his office in Beirut, Lebanon, where he was president of the American University of Beirut.

"We can actually do something about it. We can vote people in who actually have the courage to protect people's lives and not just bow down to the NRA because they've financed their campaign for them," said Kerr.

"Hopefully, we'll find enough people, first of all, to vote good people in, but hopefully, we can find people with courage to help our citizens remain safe and focus on the real safety issues. Not building some stupid wall for billions of dollars that has nothing to do with our safety, but actually protecting us from what truly is dangerous, which is maniacs with semi-automatic weapons just slaughtering our children. It's disgusting."

Video: Courtesy of YouTube.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

In Between: Taking on gender politics without apology

On Sunday morning in Washington, D.C., my wife and I attended a sneak preview of In Between (Bar Bahar in Arabic), a bold and brassy Israeli drama written and directed by Palestinian filmmaker Maysaloun Hamoud about living Arab and female in Israel. The "in-your-face-but-not-in-your-face" film is set in freewheeling and secular Tel Aviv, where the fallout from Arab Spring has brought about a new underground of Palestinians who are enjoying never-imagined freedoms – they're caught up in a new social revolution, a new world order, if you will – yet, whose underground nightlife remains contemporary and ethnic.

In Between presents three very different women – a conservative, hijab-wearing Muslim university computer science student; a modern Muslim criminal lawyer who likes to party after hours; and a liberal, Christian underground scene DJ/bartender – who happen to share an apartment where they find themselves balancing their lives between "tradition and modernity, citizenship and culture, fealty and freedom." Each woman tries to shape her own destiny despite living in a conservative Arab society that's entrenched in patriarchy.

In In Between, there's a whole lot of young people who are thinking and behaving differently – a mixture of gay and straight culture – while breaking down sacred and sexual barriers. The film, which stars Palestinian actresses Mouna Hawa (as the beautiful extrovert Laila), Sana Jammelieh (as the artsy and closeted lesbian Salma) and Shaden Kanboura (as the somewhat näive but observant and studious Nour), is presented in Arabic and Hebrew dialogue with English subtitles and includes an exotic and pulsating electronica soundtrack. It is Hamoud's first feature-length film – she did it with Israeli funding – and it earned her a fatwa from her own people because of the frank and explicit subject matter it tackled: homosexuality, intoxication and drug use.

"I couldn't imagine this happening, but I am not surprised," said Hamoud, during a 2017 BBC Newsnight interview. "They didn't want to look in the mirror and see the ugly face that is put in front of them."

As we see during this non-rated 103-minute film, In Between also deals with a Jewish state that treats its Arab citizens with a sense of mistrust, which makes it even more of a challenge for Laila, Salma and Nour to be able to live free in a restricted society and defend their sense of independence from the familial values they no longer share.

Throughout In Between, suggests critic Susan Wloszczyna of RogerEbert.com, what is most intriguing is "how each woman is allowed to make mistakes and learn from them without any judgment on Hamoud's part." Another critic, Ella Taylor of NPR, writes that "Hamoud's narrative instincts can be broad, but she is rarely glib or coy. That she has chosen to focus squarely on internal tensions within the Arab community – the widening cultural and political gulf between the generations – is a mark of her courage, her bravado and her brutal honesty."

In his review of In Between, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott notes that the movie "is fatalistic about the local political situation, pessimistic about men and encouraged by the power of female solidarity. In other words, whether by serendipity or prophetic insight or some combination of the two, it's a perfect movie for the movement."

Adds Hamoud: "The thing that's really touched me is when women come and say 'you are inspiring for us'. I cannot ask for more than this."

In awarding In Between best debut feature film at the Haifa Film Festival, the jury described it as "a powerful creation about women fighting to shape their fate by coping with challenges, through friendship, courage, victory, and by breaking free of shackles, and the price they pay."

In an age of #MeToo, In Between takes on gender politics without apology. I highly recommend this award-winning film, which has received limited release in the U.S.

Photo: Courtesy of Film Movement. Videos: Courtesy of YouTube.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Social media maelstrom: Did FCA really use MLK's words about the value of service to sell Ram trucks? Yes.

Each year, there's no bigger stage than the Super Bowl for advertisers – and Super Bowl LII was no different. While the tone of some of this year's messages aimed for laughter and nostalgia – not to mention philanthropy in an age of Trumpian tax cuts – one advertisement in particular drew much online criticism.

During the second quarter of Sunday night's Super Bowl game between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, American car maker Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) turned to a sermon given 50 years ago by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. about the value of service and used it as the voice-over to sell Ram trucks.

If there's a wince award to be given – based upon the impact or backlash it made on social media – this would be the winner.

The use of Dr. King's sermon, entitled "The Drum Major Instinct," was part of a five-ad campaign by FCA that also included a classic scene from "Jurassic Park" featuring actor Jeff Goldblum and Queen's much-overused anthem "We Will Rock You" to market its Jeep and Ram brands. At a combined 240 seconds, FCA tied Anheiser-Busch for second-most ad time during this year's Super Bowl, which was broadcast by NBC across the the U.S. and reached an estimated 103.4 million TV viewers, the smallest Super Bowl audience since 2009. Each 30-second Super Bowl commercial cost advertisers about $5 million.

According to AdAge, FCA's global chief marketing officer Olivier Francois is "fond of calling on historical figures and movie and music stars backed by montages of vehicles and everyday people. He has a tendency to source ideas from a wide array of agencies, often making last-minute decisions on the winners."

In "Built to Serve," which was created by Chicago-based boutique agency Highdive, it made use of an MLK speech delivered 50 years ago to the day (Feb. 4, 1968) at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta – his last major speech before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 – in which the civil rights icon declared "everybody can be great" because everybody can serve. Throughout the ad spot, there are "26 powerful images of those serving others" – "everyday people," including a farmer, a barber, a fisherman, a teacher, students in a classroom and members of the military. There's even a firefighter lifting a child over his shoulder.

"But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant," MLK is heard (but not seen) saying, "That's the new definition of greatness. By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve."

The ad reaches its conclusion with a message that to serve "you only need a heart full of grace. Soul generated by love." Then, the last image shown on screen is of the Ram slogan "Built to Serve."

While some liked the ad, calling it "wonderful" and "continuing on your legacy of 'on brand' storytelling," it also drew polarizing reactions, such as "who knew MLK was talking about pickup trucks this whole time" and "MLK wanted equal rights and for me to buy a Dodge Ram." A story about the Ram ad online in Huffington Post suggests "People were, understandably, not very happy with the company's attempt to profit off of one of history's greatest social just advocates."

In today's lead editorial in The New York Times, entitled "Dr. King's Words Turned Upside Down," it wrote: "Ostensibly, the Ram commercial was an appeal for people to serve. But who's kidding whom? The goal was to sell trucks, with Dr. King as pitchman."

Mind you, FCA has often relied upon using message-driven Super Bowl ads to touch on the state of the American economy and farming industry, featuring appearances or off-camera voice-overs by well-known cultural figures like Eminem, Oprah Winfrey, Bob Dylan, Clint Eastwood and Paul Harvey. These were all critically acclaimed and memorable.

However, now, one need only point toward the irony of the NFL's attempt to monetize MLK's activism while at the same time it systematically colludes against Colin Kaepernick, a black quarterback, and his protests of police brutality and systematic racism.

"Black people can't kneel and play football, but MLK should be used to sell trucks during the Super Bowl," tweeted writer and comedian Akilah Hughes. "Unbelievable."

In an interview with The New York Times published in its Monday print editions, Tim Calkins, a Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management marketing professor, said of FCA's "Built to Serve" ad: "It's the wrong mistake to make given everything that's going on in the U.S. right now. There's so much emotion right now around race in this country that this was a high-risk move, and clearly it's not going over very well.

"I think it was well intentioned, but they're going to have a lot of explaining to do," said Mr. Calkins.

Indeed, especially when you add to the disconnect that MLK's sermon touched on the danger of overspending on items like cars – not to mention people "are so often taken by advertisers."

One thing I learned from looking over a variety of social media in researching this commentary is that many viewers felt that FCA's "Built to Serve" ad, which was meant to inspire about the power of service, cooperation and community, was distasteful because it used the words and voice of a civil rights icon to advertise trucks.

Did FCA cross the line when it used MLK's voice as a means to sell trucks during its 60-second advertisement for the 2019 Ram 1500? I think it did, especially when you consider that the Black Lives Matter movement still march in the streets and NFL players are criticized for taking a knee during the National Anthem in silent protest against racism and policy brutality. I found it insulting to the memory of the revered civil rights leader.

However, if you were to ask Eric D. Tidwell, managing director of Intellectual Properties Management, the licensor of the MLK estate, you would get a different answer from mine.

In a statement released at the height of the backlash Sunday night, the King Estate said it had reviewed FCA's ad before it aired to make sure it met its standards and "found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King's philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others.

"Thus we decided to be a part of Ram's 'Built to Serve' Super Bowl program."

Meanwhile, FCA, the parent company of Ram, defended its ad and released a statement Sunday night. It said it was "honored to have the privilege of working with the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. to celebrate those words during the largest TV viewing event annually," and added "Estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process every step of the way."

Fine, but as The New York Times concluded about the "sheer crassness"exhibited by FCA in using MLK's voice and message to sell its Ram product and further its ideals – and I am in agreement – "He did not ask to be a huckster for a line of trucks."

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A Tuesday Night Memo: Thoughts on turning eight

People who know me well know that I've been interested in writing, reporting and storytelling for a long time. So, it's only natural that I turned to blog writing because it gave me an opportunity to hone my writing skills and provided a forum for writing about things that interested me and that I wanted to share with others.

My blog, A Tuesday Night Memo, turned eight last week. Here's a little history about it:

I started writing A Tuesday Night Memo on January 26, 2010, as a means for sharing musings about my life filled with music, sport, and urban travel, and to foster community with my friends, family and Facebook acquaintances. More recently, as I added a Twitter profile, it allowed me to reach a wider audience across the country and beyond.

People who know me well know that I'm passionate about music, sport, and urban travel. Additionally, I have used my blog as a vehicle for writing about art, food, fashion, religion and gardening – and, more recently, about politics. Before we moved to the east coast, sharing news and photos about our former Oakland, Calif., flower gardens at home always seem to generate great interest and enthusiasm. Maybe, it was the pretty shapes and colors of our flowers that others found appealing, especially since we could maintain a garden all year long.

Up to now, I have "blogged" 391 entries for A Tuesday Night Memo, which collectively have received more than 142,000 page views. Among the many subjects I have written about include: my appreciation of tennis champion Roger Federer, how the city of Seattle fosters community through international cinema, a history of the world as seen through 100 objects, classical music conductor Gustavo Dudamel, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, my love affair with Pink Martini, validating our travel through our photographs, and Jerry Seinfeld's Internet comedy Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Some of my recent posts have focused on new books written by actor Tom Hanks and veteran newsman Dan Rather. My most recent post focused on the future of the food industry in light of recent sexual harassment allegations made against many high profile chefs across the country. I have shared my interest in digital photography since beginning my blog, which has enabled me to illustrate many if not all of my posts with colorful visuals to match the words I've written.

The feedback many have shared is not only very much appreciated, but I also find it very useful. Much of it has been positive, but sometimes it's also been critical. Whether good or bad, I've found the feedback readers provide to be a valuable learning tool. Occasionally, I like to sneak a look at my blog's statistics, which are the key indicators that show how many total "hits" my blog has received, which stories have been read the most, and what countries comprise the blog's readership. The numbers are modest but nevertheless interesting.

Here are a few fun facts about A Tuesday Night Memo I thought you might enjoy:

Since my blog's debut, it has been read in dozens of countries, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, France, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Hong Kong – even Brazil, India, Vietnam, and Australia. The top five countries reading my blog include the U.S, Russia, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. I hope Russia's interest in my blog has nothing to do with their wanting to hack me because of my occasional blog posts about President Donald Trump.

Looking ahead, the Trump presidency will continue to garner my interest and attention from time to time. How could it not? However, there's so much more to write about. Among things that I look forward to learning about include my continuing interest in exploring museums – and what we can learn from them. Also, I would like to explore the effect digital music and media have in connecting our world.

In the meantime, I thoroughly enjoy sharing my writing week in and week out, and I look forward to contributing more of my words and thoughts in what is shaping up to be another exciting year awaiting all of us.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

TimesTalks D.C.: Food is what's going to save America

Last Thursday, The New York Times hosted a most interesting and informative "TimesTalks D.C." roundtable on the future of restaurants, the plight of undocumented workers in the food industry and gender equity in the workplace at George Washington University. The "Future of Restaurants" panelists included James Beard Foundation Award-winners José Andrés (Spanish-American chef and Washington, D.C. restaurateur, often credited for bringing the small plates dining concept "tapas" to America), Danny Meyer (CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group and founder of the popular Shake Shack casual dining cafes), and Aaron Silverman (owner/chef at Rose's Luxury in Washington, D.C.). The multi-Michelin starred panel was moderated by Kim Severson, national food correspondent for The New York Times.

During the frank and lively 80-minute discussion, which was aired live on Facebook.com/nytimes, Severson started by asking each panelist if they have been practicing their "active male listening" in light of recent stories pertaining to sexual harassment in the workplace, including the restaurant industry.

"We are only as good as the people we have around us ... and we need to be calling out when we see something that is not right," said Andrés, the father of three daughters, about the #MeToo movement happening now in every industry, not just the field of food. "It's about humanity. ... I don't want to have any regrets that I didn't do the right thing."

Meyer, whose New York City-based Union Square Hospitality Group includes Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and Shake Shack concepts, spoke about the future opening of his first Union Square Cafe outside of New York at the Capitol Crossing complex in Mount Vernon triangle. "The thing that I'm most excited about is starting with the great restaurant community (in D.C.)," he said, which also includes creating safe spaces and promoting diversity. "I think we have an amazing moment to talk about who we want to be going forward right now."

Silverman, whose Little Pearl coffee shop and wine bar evolved out of a daytime cafe (Pineapple and Pearls) he used to operate, responded to a question about the elevation of "ethnic" foods: "I think there is a lot of food that isn't 'American' or French or Spanish that is already being elevated. It's totally happening and I hope to see more of it.

"It feels good to be able to say yes to people. We're just trying to make people happy."

Andrés, whose humanitarian relief effort has resulted in more than 3.2 million meals for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, recently wrote a Washington Post op-ed about immigration reform. He said: "America is about pragmatism. We should be creating smart visas to give opportunities for those people to come in, work, get paid, and go back to their communities."

Later, Andrés summed up the evening's wide-ranging discussion perfectly – and it took just one just one sentence to do it. He said: "At the end of the day, food is what's going to save America."

Photo: © Michael Dickens, 2018.